86 pages 2 hours read

Jacqueline Woodson

Harbor Me

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Jacqueline Woodson's 2018 middle grade novel, Harbor Me, tracks the bonds of friendship that develop across six fifth-graders when they are given a unique opportunity to get to know each other. Amari, Esteban, Tiago, Ashton, Holly, and Haley Shondell McGrath (the narrator) are students with special learning needs in a Brooklyn school. Each friend has fears and frustrations that they share with each other over the year, and by opening up, they discover a collective strength.

Plot Summary

One day in class, Esteban reveals that his father has been taken away by immigration officials because he and his family are from the Dominican Republic and do not have US citizenship. Esteban is worried for his father and about what will happen to the rest of his family. Their teacher, Ms. Laverne, tells them that from now on, they will be given the last hour of each Friday to sit together in an empty classroom to talk about whatever they want to, free of supervision. The six jokingly dub their space ARTT (A Room to Talk). 

Esteban's story resonates with Haley because her own father is in prison a few hours away. Her mother is dead, and she is living with her uncle while her father is incarcerated. She asks her uncle to buy her a voice recorder, and she begins recording her own thoughts and taking the device to the ARTT meetings. Esteban records the story of his father, who was taken by immigration officials from his job at a factory in Queens and placed in a detention center in Florida.

Amari is upset at the idea that someone could be detained in the USA, which claims to be the land of the free. He also expresses frustration about racism and fears that he will be racially profiled or even attacked by police. He shares how his father warned him not to play with toy guns because police killed a Black boy for doing the same. Amari is also frustrated that as a White boy, Ashton seems to be permitted to play with toy guns without any fear of retaliation. 

Haley sees Ashton being bullied after school and realizes he also has fears. In one of the ARTT meetings, Ashton reveals that he didn't really think about being White until he entered the Brooklyn school after moving from out of state and became the only White student in the fifth grade. He mentions that Amari asked him if he was albino when they first met because of Ashton’s pale skin. However, Amari confirms that he and Ashton are friends. After school that day, Amari, Esteban, and Tiago escort Ashton to stop the bullies from attacking him. 

Tiago takes a turn at one ARTT meeting to tell his own story. He shares how his family is from Puerto Rico and thus US citizens, but they are still sometimes discriminated against and told to "go back" to their "own country." Tiago identifies as American but struggles with switching between English and Spanish, preferring to speak Spanish with his family. 

Holly and Haley are very close friends. Holly knows the truth about Haley’s father and asks why Haley hasn't shared her own story with the ARTT group. At the next ARTT meeting, Haley opens up. According to her uncle, Haley's mother died when her father accidentally crashed their car. Her father was put in prison after being convicted of vehicular homicide. 

After Easter break, the group learns that Esteban and his family have been deported to the Dominican Republic. To remember him, they listen to poetry written by Esteban’s father that Esteban recited into Haley's voice recorder. At the last ARTT meeting of the year, Amari, Tiago, Holly, Haley, and Ashton reminisce about the year and marvel about how close they have become. They vow to return to the ARTT room in 20 years to celebrate their bond of friendship. 

Haley's father is finally released from prison and comes home to live with her and her uncle. As her father plays music for her, she thinks about how much she wants to share with him and learn from him. She feels sad that her time with her ARTT friends has come to an end, but she is excited about what looks to be a new chapter in her life.